Struggling expat restaurateurs await light at end of pandemic tunnel

By Nguyen Quy   August 21, 2021 | 04:31 pm PT
Struggling expat restaurateurs await light at end of pandemic tunnel
Manuel Reale (R) instructs a girl to make pizza at his restaurant kitchen in HCMC. Photo courtesy of Manuel Reale
Expat restaurateurs caught in the headlights of the Covid-19 pandemic are clinging strongly to hopes that Vietnam will succeed sooner than later in containing the novel coronavirus.

Italian Manuel Reale, head chef and co-owner of the Pizza Reale restaurant in HCMC’s District 2, said all of his staff have taken unpaid leave for three months after his restaurant shut down following the lockdown order.

"My restaurant had already suffered before this current wave, and earned almost no profit last year, but I tried my best to keep all staff and pay their salaries. But the extended lockdown measures have made everything worse," he told VnExpress International.

"Though my business is suspended, I still have to pay the rent of VND14 million ($613) a month, not to mention other expenses. Luckily, my landlord has allowed me to pay it after lockdown measures are lifted."

Before the pandemic, Reale’s restaurant in the Thao Dien area, home to a large expat community in the city, had 37 staff, but this has dwindled to eight now.

"When we closed my restaurant, we had a lot of fresh ingredients that couldn't be kept for long, but we didn't throw them away. Instead, we made free meals for poor people in locked down areas," he said.

Reale is one of many foreign restaurant owners in Vietnam grappling with financial woes as a result of the Covid's resurgence with the more deadly Delta variant.

No layoffs, distributing free food

Robin Deepu, long time HCMC resident and co-owner of popular Indian restaurant chain Baba's Kitchen that has two branches in HCMC and one in Hoi An, said all three establishments have been closed for months and he didn’t know when they could reopen if the current pandemic situation lasted longer than expected.

"Before the pandemic, my restaurant chain, which specializes in authentic Indian cuisine, earned profits of $5,000 to 8,000 a month, but we have suffered a lot without customers and delivery services.

"Every month, I have to pay rent of $6,000 for locations in HCMC and nearly $2,000 for the restaurant in Hoi An. I have not laid-off any staff and have paid them their salaries," he added.

Robin and his employees have been cooking free meals for people in locked-down areas and hospitals in the city, including expats, locals and frontline medical workers.

Robins employees prepare free meals to give them to needy people and frontline workers in HCMC, August 2021. Photo courtesy of Robin Deepu.

Robin Deepu's employees prepare free meals to give them to needy people and frontline Covid-19 workers in HCMC, August 2021. Photo courtesy of Robin Deepu

"I hope the pandemic situation will improve so that dining services can resume operation. If things get worse and lockdown measures are further extended, I am afraid I might not be able to pay the salaries for all the staff as I have been doing so far," he said.

Christopher Arizaga, American chef and owner of Tippy's Mexican Food Saigon restaurant chain in HCMC, has also had all his staff stay at home for around three months without pay.

He managed to survive shutting down his restaurant for months by offering home deliveries of frozen food products he had begun trading in over the past two years, but even this business has not been easy, given the tough travel restrictions and police barricades.

"I was fortunate because I took the initiative at the beginning of pandemic to invest in the business of frozen food. At the same time, however, I do fear that if I do not start to work again soon, I may lose both my restaurants in District 2 and District 4."

Over the last two years and four coronavirus waves, he has many times reduced the working hours of his staff to cut costs. He now has only 20 employees for both restaurants.

"I do not consider that I am suffering considering the extreme hardship that some of my staff and their families are experiencing," he said.

Jean, a French chef who runs a small restaurant in Hanoi, said he was having a major headache in paying monthly rent and utility bills after his establishment closed for nearly a month due to strict social distancing measures.

"I had only four staff and all of them took unpaid leave because I could not afford to pay them amid the business shutdown," he said.

"I don’t have much capital and I fear if lockdown measures last longer than expected, I would go bankrupt and shut down my business. My monthly rent alone is VND25 million a month, not to mention other expenses."

The Frenchman said he hoped the government will ease restrictions and allow restaurants and dining establishments that comply with pandemic prevention measures to resume operations and prevent their plunging into financial crisis.

All the expat restaurateurs that VnExpress International spoke to said that despite the shutdowns and financial woes, they believed in the government’s anti-pandemic measures and expected Vietnam to contain the ongoing outbreak soon.

Robin and Arizaga said they expected the government to quickly bring the outbreak under control and protect the health of all people, including foreigners living in the country.

They said they were hoping for things to return to normal soon so that their business can reopen.

Reale concurred: "I believe Vietnam will quickly go past this moment. I don’t have any plans to return home to Italy as Vietnam remains a safe destination with one of the lowest rates of Covid incidence."

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